When I was in graduate school, I took what I thought was going to be a “filler” type of class in Business Leadership. It turned out to be one of the most interesting classes I have ever taken and it set in motion a life-long study of what it means to be a leader.
The shrill, noisy, and extemporaneous nature of the social web is not exactly an ideal environment for the traditional notion of leadership. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and have listed below a few ways I believe social media presents challenges for leadership. I’d love to hear what you think …
1) How do you exert leadership in an environment that disdains leadership?
Even though any kind of “rules” or hierarchy are disdained on the web, people still have an innate urge to want to know who is in charge … even when nobody is in charge! In a world so densely-packed with information, I sense that people are hungry for real leaders to step up and establish a voice of authority, communicate calmly and clearly, and show others how to make sense of this chaotic world. What does leadership look like in an environment that shuns leadership? Who are real leaders on the web and why?
2) Technology has dis-intermediated traditional paths to leadership
Twenty years ago, working in a traditional company was also your graduate school. There were training programs you accumulated along the way and formal mentoring initiatives to help you figure out how to lead a company.
Today, anybody with a computer can start a business. You don’t need capital or assets or even a production path. You just need a good idea and an ability to create computer code. This is an exciting revolution but what happens when a 22-year-old college dropout is suddenly running a billion dollar company? What replaces the traditional educational ladder? Do we NEED to? Is there still a role for traditional management education?
3) Hashtag Leadership
In the past few years we have witnessed dramatic examples of social-media-enabled revolutions like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. These were crowd-sourced revolts without a distinct agenda or obvious leader.
Without question, social media helped these initiatives coalesce. But to what end? The power vacuum in the Middle East has been filled with conventional parties again, leading to more discord. I’m not sure what concrete accomplishment the rudderless Occupy Wall Street movement can claim in the end.
These movements had weak, nearly crowd-sourced leadership. It was essentially Hashtag Leadership. The movements became KNOWN but is that an accomplishment? What does the future look like for weak-link leadership?
4) Does the speed of business provide a mandate for kings instead of leaders?
The intense speed of global business has made traditional command-and-control hierarchies obsolete. To compete today, we need to push responsibility, accountability, customer service, innovation, and time to market to “an 11.”
One new leadership model accomplished this better than any other the world has ever seen — Apple, because Steve Jobs was not the company leader. He was its king.
Steve Jobs was unlike any leader I can think of short of a military dictator. His power was so complete that he ordered his board of directors to resign so he could replace them with his hand-picked supporters.
Jobs did a lot right — prioritization and focus, devotion to quality and customers, bold decisiveness, an ability to attract talent, and creative vision for his brand, to name a few. But he was also a nasty, obsessive bully who often put his own ego above the rational needs of his company and his customers. Let’s face it. He would not have lasted in any other publicly-traded company in America.
And yet Apple would not have achieved the breathtaking scale and scope of innovation we have witnessed without this highly unusual corporate structure. He ruled by instinct, and there is something to be said for that.
But the danger of this was exposed, too when Jobs’ ego and maniacal attention to detail nearly ran strong projects into the ground. There was no accountability, no checks and balances.
Is this an ideal model for innovation or a recipe for disaster? Do we elevate quirky geniuses or organizational leaders? Can you be both?
5) Transparency and political leadership
I think one contributor to American political paralysis is the harsh transparency and instantaneous public feedback from the social web.
Not long ago, you only had to face your constituents every few months when you planned a trip back home. Now leaders are exposed to the constant clanging of public opinion. They are sometimes fighting for political relevance minute by minute.
In some ways this feedback is transformational but in some ways it probably enables dysfunction and obsession with polls.
6) Crowdsourcing leadership
I met this interesting young lady who had created three successful start-ups by the age of 26.
She had no previous business experience.
She had no college degree.
In fact, she had never even take a business course.
How did she navigate the world of finance, HR, and marketing to get these companies off the ground? Her social media connections.
“I have friends who work for Google during the day but help me at night,” she said. “Basically I crowd-source all my expert advice.”
American industrialist Andrew Carnegie once said the key to successful leadership was having the courage to surround yourself with people smarter than you.
I think that still holds true but there are exciting new opportunities to accomplish this through the social hive that requires a different type of networking skill.
7) The awkward truth about social proof
Let’s say you were thinking about signing up for an online social media seminar. The content looks similar for two courses you are considering so you look at the gurus behind the content. One guru has 100,000 Twitter followers. The other one has 2,000. Which one do you choose?
The sad and strange truth is that these numbers matter and actually create an image of leadership from nothing. In my book Return On Influence, I tell the story about a former social media leader who admitted to me that he had manufactured his entire social media presence. He bought Twitter followers and Facebook Likes to appear to be powerful. He eventually crumbled under the weight of his charade but for many years he maintained an image of power and popularity when there was nothing underneath.
At least in the short-term, you can fake your way into a position of leadership on the web. Remember when actually you had to earn a position of authority?
Well, that’s enough from me on the subject. Please add your thoughts, additions and comments in the comment section below! How is social media changing the traditional notion of leadership?
This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.